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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 6, 2006

It's a small dining world after all

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Today, everyone's a food critic. Produce-shopping housewives aren't the only ones discussing Jerusalem artichokes Grandma and your office co-workers are, too.

After watching Alton Brown on "Iron Chef America," that teen punk down the street who wants to be the next Jamie Oliver probably has an opinion on the upcoming ban on imported beluga caviar.

I blame the Food Network and the Fine Living channel for democratizing haute cuisine and making my job harder.

Who can avoid drooling over plates of food prepared by the country's best culinary talents? TV makes it easy to fantasize about sipping a champagne mojito at a slick Gotham establishment like the Pegu Club.

A pair of $200 True Religion jeans might be too expensive, but any woman can look chic clutching a Singapore Sling and nibbling organic edamame at Shokudo. Call it accessible edible luxury.

To further tempt the public into going gourmet, network heads have also thrown in delicious chefs such as Giada De Laurentiis and Todd English with top-model appeal, along with the boy/girl-next-door types of Tyler Florence and Rachael Ray. Hey, they even made rebel kitchenista Anthony Bourdain appetizing.

The result of all this food fawning is that restaurant-goers are more knowledgeable than ever about what constitutes a solid dining experience. We are now better informed about culinary trends around the world without having to leave our couches. And when we do go out for a bite, we expect more, and are likely to spend more to get it.

CHANGING FOOD VIEWS

On an eating pilgrimage to Manhattan last year, I had one of those "the world is shrinking" moments that put my food views into new perspective.

Mario Batali's decadent warm lamb's tongue vinaigrette and delicately rich goat-cheese tortelloni with dried orange and wild fennel pollen thrilled me at Babbo. But en route home, I stumbled across something that surprised me even more than the innovative cuisine of the 2005 James Beard outstanding chef award winner.

At a food kiosk in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, ocean salad packaged neatly in plastic wrap and Styrofoam stared back at me. That's right, the neon-green seaweed stuff found in O'ahu supermarkets. It hit me then that the days of insular Hawai'i Regional cuisine/Pacific Rim fusion are over.

Let me be clear before hate mail bombards me. I adore mom-and-pop enterprises such as Ono Loa Hawaiian Foods that are truly unique to our locale and that dole out lots of aloha with their plate lunches. But when I find ocean salad as filler on a nearly-$20 appetizer plate in a Waikiki restaurant, I feel like I'm dicing onions.

MAINLAND FLAVOR

Forget about our special monopoly on poke. Mainland restaurants do the Italian version, called crudo, with an array of seafood and a host of flavorings. For example, Shea Gallante turns out little jewels of raw suzuki (Japanese sea perch) with cured beets, Montevertine olive oil and trout roe at Cru in New York City.

Gold pineapple has appeared with roasted foie gras at San Francisco's Michael Mina and has popped up as a sorbet at chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa Valley. But this fruit that practically grows in our backyards can only be found at a handful of our premier restaurants. Instead, out-of-season, flown-in strawberries often appear in our desserts.

Although we have a lot to be proud of when it comes to produce, only a fraction of it shows up on our restaurant tables. Recently, I thought I might run screaming from a dinner after encountering Waialua asparagus and the accompanying "Enjoy!" for the nth time. The springy stalk is one of my favorite vegetables, but where are the other crops?

Zucchini is grown here, but zucchini blossoms and baby zucchinis rarely make it onto our menus. Last summer, baked apple crisps were everywhere as locally grown watermelons yearning for a cool plunge in gelatin or granita sat neglected.

The splendor of rambutan, pulasan, jackfruit, pohole ferns and the diversity of vegetables at a single Chinatown stall remain a mystery waiting to be explored by tourists and locals alike.

Top of Waikiki executive chef Sean Priester, known for his inventive, eclectic work, explains that much of the problem has to do with availability and cost. Big-name produce vendors are reluctant to carry items if there is no demand for them. Priester was told he'd have to go to Chinatown if he wanted breadfruit. He notes the case of the trendy dragon fruit and said, "Once there's that chef that starts getting mentioned about using exotic, old-school products, it will (only) be called 'exotic' for now."

At Town in Kaimuki, the progressive kitchen revolves around a daily visit to Island Fresh Produce across the street and a relationship with Wai'anae's MA'O Farms. Chef de cuisine David Caldiero admits it takes extra work and flexibility to present a daily changing menu that sticks to the restaurant's "local first, organic whenever possible" philosophy. But the ambition has paid off. MA'O now grows fennel and has experimented with English breakfast radishes and purslane for the restaurant. Caldiero said, "Our goal is not just to have relationships with these people, but to support them so we don't have to outsource random ingredients."

New York, Chicago and San Francisco, with their farm-to-table seasonal menu philosophy, set the pace for national dining trends, and Las Vegas and Seattle aren't far behind.

If Honolulu is important enough to be featured city on MTV's "The Real World," we can't rest on our laulau leaves when it comes to our dining scene. Last year, eating at all levels of restaurants, I encountered spoiled papaya soup, frozen chicken, a piece of plastic and a parmesan rind hunk with barely an "oops" for a response. In the meantime, record numbers of visitors familiar with 'ahi, yuzu and Sriracha in New American cuisine, and who are accustomed to a level of service rarely seen here, will demand more from us. They are looking for what they can't get back home not just from our most expensive establishments, but from every okazu-ya, plate-lunch place and brunch buffet that makes it into a Hawai'i guidebook.

Hang on to your napkins. As diners and restaurant chains smarten up, things could get messy in Restaurant World.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com.